Deciding on Full Frame Sensor vs Crop Sensor

Sensor sizes vary depending on make and model of a camera and you should know the difference between Full Frame Sensor and Crop sensor before investing in a new camera. Back in the days of film cameras, SLRs had a standard 35mm rectangle to capture images; this is where the full frame term comes from. Modern digital cameras have sensor sized at 24mm x 36mm but are still considered to be full frame sensor since they cover the same area that a 35mm film would. Some new digital cameras have smaller sized sensors so the “crop factor” refers to a smaller sensor’s diagonal size as compared to a full-frame 35mm sensor. For example, a crop factor of 1.6x means that the image will be zoomed in by 1.6x when compared to a full frame shot. This ratio is sometimes called focal length multiplier.

Crop Sensor advantages

Digital Sensor Sizes illustrated

Since Crop Sensor essentially cuts out information from the sides of the shot it actually picks the sharpest part of the image. Most inexpensive lenses usually take shots that are sharp in the center but get distorted as you move out closer to the edges. Crop sensors essentially cut these distorted sides and just keep the good center part, which allows you to shoot quality shots with relatively inexpensive lens. Crop sensor also “multiplies” the focal length of the camera thus allowing anyone who shoots nature, sports and travel to carry smaller and lighter zoom lenses but still achieve shots comparable to those taken on much bulkier full sensor cameras. For example, 180mm lens on 1.6x crop sensor will be almost equivalent to 300mm lens on a full frame sensor (180 x 1.6 = 288). This can be a true blessing during long shoots. Since Crop sensors are smaller and lighter – they can fit in point-and-shoot cameras. However, a smaller sensor will typically produce more noise.

Full Frame 1.3x Crop 1.5x Crop 1.6x Crop
10mm 13mm 15mm 16mm
28mm 36.4mm 42mm 44.8mm
50mm 65mm 75mm 80mm
105mm 136.5mm 157.5mm 168mm
200mm 260mm 300mm 320mm
600mm 780mm 900mm 960mm

Full Frame Sensor advantages

Image shot with Full Frame and 1.6x Crop sensors @ 100mm

Full Frame sensor is much better at keeping the noise levels low thus ensuring great image quality even in dark situations (although this depends on sensor manufacturing process). Besides low noise levels, full frame sensors also have a larger dynamic range which ultimately means better image quality.  View finder on the full frame cameras also tends to be much clearer and larger which can be beneficial, especially when using manual focus. Wide angle shooting is another advantage of the full frame sensors. Because crop sensor multiplies the focal length, the lens has to be very wide to achieve the same result as full frame, and wide lenses tend to be pricey. Architecture photographers might consider investing into full frame cameras for their line of work. Finally, portrait photographer might appreciate that full frame sensors can achieve shallower depth of field creating that beautiful blur (bokeh) in the background.

Final thoughts – which is right for you?

Full frame sensors generally produce better quality images and have lower noise levels. However, they are usually placed in higher-grade (more expensive) cameras and they need premium (more expensive) lenses to maintain consistent image quality. Additionally, full frame bodies generally weigh more and longer and heavier lenses are needed for zoom photography, when compared to crop frame cameras.

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This entry was posted by Alex Gumerov.

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